Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three False Constraints

Once again, a call goes out to make games more culturally meaningful. I agree very much with the sentiment, but I've always been frustrated with how designers set themselves up for failure due to the constraints placed on the problem.

In mathematics, computer science, and physics there is a the concept of a 'hard' problem. What does the inside of a black hole look like? How do you identify an NP complete problem? How can we travel faster than the speed of light? All of these are wonderfully interesting, but they are considered ‘hard’ because there may not actually be an answer that is discoverable before the heat death of the known universe.

We’ve turned the creation of culturally meaningful games into a similarly ‘hard’ problem. It doesn’t need to be.

Three false constraints
When we talk about making games culturally meaningful we often limit the discussion in three important ways. The following constraints are completely arbitrary, yet we stick with them like they are some holy mandates from a greater god.
  • Single player: By ‘games’, game developers typically mean ‘single player games’. Multiplayer is either not considered or is treated as a secondary feature.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through content: We seek to create meaning through the use of content created by developers for consumption by players. Only if we author the right content in the form of graphics, movies, music, writing, active and level design will the game have impact. Content created by the players is discounted.
  • Powerful platforms: Inevitably developers talking about ‘video games’ limit themselves to consoles or perhaps high end PCs. There is an assumption that if only we can get better graphics, better AI, bolder levels and more intense explosions, then at some point we will cross over a line in the sand and all must bow before the amazing new reality we have wrought. Big budgets and big tech are clearly essential. The idea that these bits of crafted fluff are secondary to the value provided by the systems of game play is rarely mentioned.

When you relax these three constraints, creating meaningful games becomes immensely easier. We go from a problem domain where there are almost zero compelling solutions to one where there are thousands of solutions. For the rest of the essay I'll cover three big impossibilities facing games' acceptance as a culturally important activity. Each problem appears 'hard' when approached through the lens of our false constraints.
  • "People in a room talking"
  • "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
  • "Reaching a broad audience"
The impossibility of “People in a room talking”
One of the ‘hard’ problems listed by Chris Hecker was the issue of people sitting around a table chatting. This is the mainstay of books and movies, yet it has eluded game developers. According to the false constraints, in order to solve this problem robustly we need the following:
  • Turing AI: A flexible conversational AI capable of passing a Turing test. It would be ideal if we also conquered the uncanny valley and hooked up our AI to virtual actors that were indistinguishable from real humans.
  • AI that can enforce artistic direction: We also need the ability for the developer to seed and control the AI so that the random interactions of thousands of unique players from unique backgrounds results the conveyance of the developer’s crafted message. The AI must therefore not only seem human, but it must understand the intent of the auteur and act as a super human manipulator of the environment and the player's experience.
I would argue that these are ludicrously hard problems. We can currently fake solutions in certain very limited situations, but we are lacking the most basic research necessary to solve these problems in a general fashion.

Even worse, the constraints conflict. There is an inherent tradeoff between increasing the flexibility of our AI and controlling the players experience. "React to the player! But do exactly what I, as the designer, tell you!" is more of a Zen kōan than a solvable problem.

...until you break the constraints
Yet as soon as you break the constraints, conversation becomes a trivial problem. A simple multiplayer online chat room gives the effect of people sitting around a room talking. So does any traditional board game or role-playing game. Or SMS. Or voice chat. Conversation flows naturally.

To the participants in the conversation, this chatter that results is more entertaining than the best writing or acting performed by the top talent in any medium. The tech is simple. The content comes from the players. And the interaction is multiplayer.

The impossibility of "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
Another challenge posed is the goal of saying something meaningful about the human condition.
  • Spatial/temporal/math puzzles that evoke humanity: The vast majority of single player games have their roots in either timing, mathematics or spatial manipulation puzzles. These systems, though entertaining and relaxing, have great difficulty modeling emotions. Often a single player model that attempts to boil down the essence of humanity comes across as dry and soulless. Asking a single player game to evoke rich emotions is much like asking a polynomial to express love. In very limited situations, in the hands of extraordinarily talented people, (see Gravitation or Passage) a single player game can evoke a glimmer from a core group of players who desperately want to believe. But single player game mechanics may never become a populist technique for saying meaningful things about the human condition. No matter how prettily we cloak the issue with artful snippets of non-interactive media, the inherent Truth at the heart of the our favorite single player game systems does not deal with humanity.
  • More direct control over the player experience: As an author expressing our vision, it would be ideal if our systems were scripted content that all players will experience within narrow behavioral bounds. If only we could deliver tight directed payloads of content like they do in other media. When an actor cries in movie, the audience instantly empathizes and reflects that emotion back. Game designers need to develop the same reliable techniques of authorial control. Wouldn't it be great if a designer could type up an equation and boom!...players break out in tears or laughter. If only our math and code would whip up a tight roller coaster of an experience that worked for all players, all the time. Yet our control levers are at least one degree removed from those found in other media. We can't simply show a visual trigger that smacks a hardwired emotion button on our monkey brain. Instead we craft mere rules. The player controls their interaction with those rules and how their ultimate experience plays out. In good games, the player is making choices that matter and exploring the systems at their own pace in their own ways. In books and movies, the audience jumps when we, as authors, want them to jump. In games, the player jumps whenever the hell they want to.
Again, these are hard problems.

...until you break the constraints
Why both with spending all this time attempting to imbue cold, heartless single player systems with the essence of humanity when humans are readily available in the form of other players? When you put real people together in a game and create social mechanics to facilitate their interaction, you see an explosion of meaningful emotional reactions. People form friendship, make enemies, fall in love, offer compliments, insult one another, tell hilarious jokes, comfort one another, bond in groups and basically exhibit the entire rich range of social emotion and behavior.

As a designer, you give up on controlling the exact experience. Instead of crafting each moment, you look at the broader possibility space that your social rules create and foster. The play space can be shaped by the designer by manipulating systems, not content. However this is not situation of singular authorship. Rules, like the laws created by governments, interact with culture and citizens of our games in unexpected and surprising ways. We are improv musicians playing off other equally creative members of the band. Multiplayer design is an ongoing process of give and take with the community. In fact, there is a well established name for absolute authorial control in a social environment. It is called a dictatorship and only tends to work when the audience is coerced into playing along. In the voluntary communities of multiplayer games, authorship is a fundamentally multiplayer activity.

Again, you don't need a powerful platform or advanced tech to bring forth a flowering of meaning. And the vast majority of the content created certainly hasn't be edited by some god-like author. Yet the emotions are real and they are brought about through a system engineered by a designer. By massaging the specific economic and social tools that feed and facilitate the human conversation, you gain a set of design techniques capable of yielding vast universes worth of meaningful games.

The impossibility of "Reaching a broad audience"
Another point about the cultural significance of game is that despite our revenue numbers, we actually reach a relatively small number of players compared to other media. A 'dominant' gaming platform like an Xbox or PS3 has sold a meager 20-30+ million consoles. Only a handful of titles sell through more than 1 million copies and these sales are generally in a limited demographic of 14-39 year old boys. Compare this minor audience with other types of media that regularly serve 5 or 6 times as many people across a broad demographic. Yes, our revenue is impressive, but the facts are a AAA core console game will touch a tiny percent of the billions of people reached by other forms of media.

Year after year, the core gaming industry attempts to broaden the market. Nintendo succeeds a little, but the rest fail. But not for lack of trying! Now matter how detailed we make our graphics. No matter how deep with make our narratives. No matter how powerful we make our GPUs. It all fails. Moms, grandfathers, people in China still insist on ignoring the latest greatest Bioware RPG or Unreal shooter. We have our best minds on perfecting the potency of our best genres and still the core market exhibits anemic growth. Reaching a broad audience is apparently hard.

...until you break the constraints
Yet when you broaden your perspective ever so slightly to include alternative platforms not specifically targeted at games, reach is the least of our worries.
  • There are multiple Facebook games that serve over 25 million unique users a month and the current top game Farmville is played by 64 million unique users a month. The Facebook platform where these games live is at 300 million worldwide and is still growing like a weed. 77 million users are in the US along and the current growth rate is 70% compounded every 6 months.
  • Games are one of the most popular classes of app on the most popular smartphone. Smart phones form a platform that will reach over a half a billion people in the coming years.
  • An individual developer can release a Flash game today and reach 10's of millions of unique players. It really isn't a big deal any more to have a game played by a million people.
There is a common theme to all these platforms. Consoles try to turn people into gamers. They attempt to suck outsiders into the gaming culture so that they play on gaming specific devices in gaming specific contexts. The new generation of social, mobile, casual and web games integrate seamlessly into a person's existing life. Instead of asking the player to set aside 2 hours in the evening locked into staring at the output of a big clunky box, they offer players a chance to relax during while waiting for the bus. Instead of asking "how do we create dedicated gamers", we ask "How can games enhance your current life."

I look to the near future and see the reach of games growing dramatically. In the next 10 year, expect to see a single game with over 250 million unique users. That is a quarter of a billion people playing in the same space. Admittedly, we may not recognize the service as a game. The topic will likely be something mundanely meaningful, not elves and dragons. The platforms will also be mundane. Some players will use PCs. Most will use phones. As a bone tossed to a wounded beast, there may even be a thin client for the remaining console players.

The source of the constraints
All this begs the question: Why do so many of the best developers insist on hanging onto these miserable and damaging constraints? There are cultural and economic factors at work.

Cultural Momentum
I am reminded of a mildly diabolical childhood development experiment performed on kittens. In 1970, psychologists Blakemore and Cooper placed several kittens in dark enclosures that only let through vertical lines of light. Several weeks later, they removed the kittens and tested if they could see any sort of horizontal features. The kittens could not. Upon dissection, it was determined that the portion of the visual cortex involved in seeing horizontal lines was irrevocably stunted. Due to the limited stimuli available during its youth, the kitten was physically incapable of ever seeing the horizon. Shortly afterwards, the kittens were killed in an act of kindness.

Most current game developers experienced a similar form of limited stimuli during their youth. An entire generation of introverted boys was raised on 20+ hours a week of Skinnerian gameplay that emphasized content, technology, and single player puzzles. The crème de la crème became game developers. Is it any surprise that they prefer these constraints? Is it any surprise that they are stubbornly incapable of seeing alternative forms of play? Many single player game developers are like children raised in the dark and unlike a helpless kitten, they will defend and justify the validity of their disability until the day that they die.

Economic Momentum
On top of this is the fact that game developers are paid by companies heavily invested in building products based off false constraints. Their bi-weekly paycheck depends on them being passionately invested in making the games that their bosses want them to make. The innovator's dilemma whispers its seductive logic. Why change what you are doing when what you are doing keeps you warm and well fed? Especially when the upstarts are so tiny compared to your efficient mainline business. Economic momentum can turn quickly, however. Just ask the 1500 core developers laid off by EA when they realized that perhaps social gaming wasn't a tiny market after all.

The False Constraints are here to stay
I have little hope in seeing these false constraints cast off completely. Most auteurs abhor change. They stubbornly stick to their dead end craft, serving a smaller and more rarified audience while the world shifts around them. Single player games stuffed with throw away content that only runs on high end machines...these odes to introversion will never die, but they will dwindle.

It takes a new generation of impudent and crass experimenters to create real artistic change. The kids growing up on Facebook games today will barely know today's poison memes of 'beating the game', or 'the Holodeck'. Instead they'll assume that of course you play games with friends. Of course you play primarily on your phone, netbook and other devices that don't make the distinction between playing games and living your life. And of course you, the player, make the most meaningful content in the game. What games will designers raised without the chains of the past end up designing?

You can waste your life flailing at impossibly hard problems or you can make a real difference in game design right now. We are at a point where there exist vast and amazing opportunities to create meaningful games. Here are some concepts to consider if you head in this direction:
  • Human emotions are simple to evoke with games. Make multiplayer games.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through systems of rules. Create rules that empower players to co-create meaningful content.
  • Reaching larger numbers of players is easy. Integrate games into the player's everyday life.
take care

Notes 12/6/2009
This essay prompted some great comments, but I noticed two issues that I hope to help with this addendum.
  • Fear: Gamers, who love single player games, fear the loss of their hobby. This tends to elicit a passionate defense of single player gaming.
  • Lack of foundation: Some readers get caught up on some of the more basic issues and therefore have difficulty grappling with the meat of the argument. This is not your fault, but mine since this essay presents a point of view without spending the time to lay down the foundation underlying the argument. The following are some notes that should help you understand the assumptions I'm drawing upon.
Re: Can't we continue to explore the meaning in single player games?
Yes, the industry will continue to make single player games. They aren't going away and we will continue to spend billions of dollars every year in an attempt to make them more evocative, narratively rich and perhaps even meaningful. All these commercial efforts, combined with the current burst of single player focused indie game devs are bound to create more expressive and meaningful games.

  • If you like our current progress towards short intense consumable experiences
  • If you like games that focus on crafted content over games that focus on creative systems
  • If you like the trend towards turning games into warped shadow of cinema
Then you have nothing to fear. In 10 years, you'll still have games that serve your particular needs. There is a generation of men just like you and our capitalist society will serve your desires until you are no longer economically viable.

However, I believe the number of new culturally meaningful games will trickle in at a depressingly slow pace. The basic reality of our medium is that the opportunities for creating culturally meaningful games based off the three constraints listed are limited in comparison to those present if you break the constraints.

Instead of worrying about what you are losing, instead focus on what we are gaining. Imagine games that connect people together. Imagine games that improve relationships. Imagine games that solve social problems. Imagine games that create understanding. Are these outcomes really all that frightening?

Re: Emotion in multiplayer games
Many players have had poor experiences with multiplayer games due to griefing. See my recent essay on testosterone in games for some explanation of why games played with strangers are often rife with unpleasantness. On the other hand, they've had delightful experiences with single player games. On the face of personal evidence, many deem it silly to state that multiplayer games offer richer, more culturally meaningful play.

Yet a broader perspective is helpful. Personal experience, or even the experience of the community playing your favorite game is a non-representative sample of the larger trends in the industry.
  • On average multiplayer modes rate more highly in terms of fun.
  • On average multiplayer modes retain users longer and are more likely to cause players to say that they would be willing to play again.
  • During user studies, observers witness a wider range of human emotions in multiplayer games. Instead of only variations on mastery, anticipation, delight and frustration, you see trust/distrust, appreciation/hatred, sympathy/alienation and more. There are entire portions of the human emotional spectrum that are rarely triggered by single player games that become available in multiplayer designs.
  • Of the emotions observed, they tend to be more extreme. People emote more strongly and in some situations, you'll see tears, exuberant celebration and real romantic love.
  • The number of extroverts, people energized by social interaction, is around 60-70% in the general US population. Extroverts make up only around 25% in technical fields such as game development.
I have several sources for these claims

I can easily believe that a decreasing majority of existing play is indeed a solitary activity. However I see this more as a historical and cultural legacy, not a true measurement of the opportunity that lies ahead. Introverts tended to make games that other introverts enjoyed and these initial starting conditions have helped define the gamer identity. However the current game culture is fighting a losing battle against two big trends:
  • There is a competitive advantage in social play: Multiplayer games rate better on the core value proposition of 'fun'. If there are two products on the shelf and one offer a fun level of 3 and the other a fun level of 4, which one will you pick? In a competitive market, the one with the stronger value proposition tends to dominate.
  • The broader audience desires social play: New emerging markets are heavily extroverted. They desire social play. For many, games lack any significance to their lives unless they are social.
I can see the balance changing where 70% of play is social and 30% is focused on individual pursuits. Again, don't worry. Introverts will of course never go away. Even strongly multiplayer genres like MMORPGs still have a single player component.

Re: But it is just a chat room
Game designers create systems that mediate social interaction within their games. The design controls many of the communication channels, availability of certain player skills and resources, as well as access to information. The game design in a multiplayer game is the difference between a ball sitting on a field and two teams playing soccer.

Chat, or more specifically communication of intent, actions and bluffing is an essential aspect of any game involving multiple people. However, the designer still has a huge responsibility to actively shape and influence the experience. To paraphrase Lawrence Lessig, "Game Design is Law" and it has many equivalent moral and social obligations. Millions of people play multiplayer games and our designs strongly influence their behavior. To state that this form of design is 'merely chat' or 'taking the easy route out' means that you are failing to engage meaningfully with the critical concepts behind multiplayer and social game design.

Re: But Facebook games are shallow!
Yes. They are. But then again so was Pong when it first came out. As a commercial industry we have spent decades and billions of dollars on turning Pong into the AAA experiences of today. If you put yourself in the shoes of many an adult at the time that Pong came out, it too was seen as a toy.

Social games on Facebook have been out 2.5 years. That's all. Give them time. And a few billion dollars. And the passion of thousands of creative people. The end result should be quite delightful.